Situation Report

13th October 1996

Censorship out: then events unfurled

By Iqbal Athas

Casualty figure for July -

a staggering 1639 - dead or missing in action

The strong man who runs Sri Lanka's military machine against separatist guerrillas, Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, took the nation by surprise last week.

Calling upon Parliament last Tuesday to adopt his resolution to further extend the State of Emergency by a month, he declared "I have now lifted the censorship..." Even if he had not personally clamped down or lifted the censorship, it was welcome news.

It was President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga who signed a proclamation on April 19, 1996, under the Public Security Ordinance titled "Emergency (Prohibition on Publication and Transmission of Sensitive Military Information) Regulations No 1 of 1996. She signed another proclamation last Tuesday rescinding this regulation thus ending the six months long military news blackout.

Just five days before he rose to speak in Parliament (on October 3) General Ratwatte told a news conference that there was no intention of lifting the censorship and accused the media of creating what he called "unwanted problems" by publishing "sensational or politically motivated news."

What caused the sudden change of mind is not clear.

Foreign Minister, Lakshman Kadirgamar, who is heading Sri Lanka's delegation to the ongoing sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, has also had to answer queries on the censorship from some of his ministerial colleagues now at the UN as well as during meetings with Sri Lankan expatriate groups. So did Professor G.L. Peiris, Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs during his visits to Canada and United States. Needless to say, clamping down a total news black out and declaring battle areas in the north out of bounds to the media are moves that are not lauded by nations in the developed world.

Even if the outside world was in the know, the vast majority of Sri Lankans were in the dark about some of the events that occurred during the six months long period of censorship. Significantly, there was one incident that was unprecedented in to be history of the 13 year old separatist war - the LTTE attack on the Mullaitivu Military Base after midnight on July 18.

For almost a week, the attention of the entire world was focused on Sri Lanka. As the world media, both electronic and print, went on to report the events, local officials (including the technical types in the intelligence community), launched a manhunt to identify those providing information to the media on the Mullaitivu incident, the worst military debacle in post independent Sri Lanka. It seemed it was more important to prevent the spread of news than to focus on the appalling human tragedy that had unfolded.

The month of July is marked by two significant anniversaries in the LTTE calendar. One is July 5, 1987, when

"Captain Millar" drove a truck laden heavily with explosives into the compound of Nelliady Central College. Troops which were engaged in phase one of "Operation Liberation" capturing Vadamaratchi (an event that was precursor to the Indo-Sri Lanka Agreement and the induction of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka) were billeted."Captain Millar" was the first "Black Tiger" of the then newly created commando arm of the LTTE to die in a suicide attack. That was to become Black Tiger Week.

Then came the unfortunate ethnic violence that broke out on July 23 after 13 soldiers were killed in a land mine explosion in Tinnevelly in the Jaffna peninsula on July 13, 1983. The month came to be designated Black July for some of the horrendous events that left a large number of Tamils dead and billions worth of their property destroyed.

Over the years, the LTTE has staged attacks in the month of July to "commemorate" the two events. On July 13, 1989, the LTTE assassinated A. Amirthalingam, leader of the Tamil United Liberation Front (TULF). In the same year, on July 16, the leader of the People's Liberation Organisation of Thamil Eelam (PLOTE) was shot dead in Colombo. On July 25, 1993, LTTE attacked the Janakapura detachment in the Weli Oya defence complex.

Soon after security forces launched "Operation Leap Forward" on July 9, the LTTE launched "Puli Paachal" (Tiger Leap) on July 14. They shot down a Pucara bomber aircraft on this day. Two days later, Sea Tigers launched a suicide attack on the Sri Lanka Navy's command ship, "Edithara", just outside the Kankesanthurai harbour.

But a major attempt by the LTTE on July 28, last year, to over-run the cluster of security forces camps in Weli Oya were repulsed effectively. Over 200 LTTE cadres were killed. Only an Army soldier and a home guard died in this incident.

These incidents occurred when the LTTE were in full control of the Jaffna peninsula and the Wanni. Operations Riviresa put paid to their domination of the peninsula and the LTTE withdrew to the jungle base offering little resistance to the Army advance. With typical political bravado the success of Riviresa was trumpeted by General Ratwatte as having won 60 per cent of the war. A well tested military principle is never to under estimate one's enemy.

Ignoring that, the defence establishment were euphoric over their success. If the military appreciated the fact that the LTTE withdrew into the Wanni with their forces intact, then the defence establishment should surely have appreciated that the LTTE had to strike somewhere. An intelligent guess even without access to the mass of intelligence the security forces should have had would have led to the conclusion that Mullaitivu being uncomfortably close to the 14 base was logically vulnerable. This alone should have necessitated not just a re-enforcemement of the Mullaitivu Base but also the streamlining of contingency planning to counter attack should Mullaitivu come under threat.

This planning does not seem to have been done or at least if such plans existed, its effectiveness in the hindsight of Mullaitivu shows serious weaknesses. Whatever be the defence of Mullaitivu as well as the counter attack plan, both proved ineffective.

This year, the LTTE stepped up activity. On July 4, a female suicide bomber made an abortive attempt on the life of Nimal Siripala de Silva, Minister of Housing, Construction and Public Utilities when he was on a visit to open a Building Materials Corporation sales outlet at Stanley Road, Jaffna. Then came the Mullaitivu debacle and the launch of "Operation Thrivida Pahara." More on that later. Immediately after this came the bomb explosion on the Alutgama bound train at the Dehiwala railway station on July 24.

In the month of July, this year, 160 security forces personnel were killed and 391 wounded in incidents involving the LTTE (including the Stanley Road suicide attack). In addition, 63 persons died and 390 were wounded in the bomb explosion in the train. That brings the total dead to 223 and those wounded to 790. This casualty figure for the month of July is without the numbers involved in the Mullaitivu debacle and the subsequent rescue operations.

Now to statistics of the Mullaitivu debacle. General Ratwatte told Parliament on August 7 that there was a strength of 1407 at this base just before the attack occurred. They were made up as follows: Army 1268, Navy 9, Police 49 and civilians 81.

From those who were inside the Mullaitivu Base, according to General Ratwatte, "we can conclude as killed in action" only 12.

He said that 415 bodies the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) "claimed to have" handed over to the Government Agent, Kilinochchi (for burial or cremation) together with 43 bodies handed over (also by ICRC at Vavuniya) which were "not individually identifiable as our soldiers" (415 + 43) have been categorised as Missing in Action. So were the others unaccounted for.

Almost four weeks after the Mullaitivu incident, two officers and 62 soldiers have returned to safety. Hence the number Missing in Action (leaving the 12 declared dead and the 64 who have returned) is 1331. The next of kin of this number have already been informed that their near and dear ones are MIA, the military acronym for those feared dead or about whom there is no evidence to confirm or establish their whereabouts. General Ratwatte also disclosed that 71 security forces personnel involved in "Operation Thrivida Pahara" (the rescue effort) were killed.

Hence the casualty figures for July, this year, is a staggering 1639 DEAD OR MISSING IN ACTION. This includes 12 declared MIA in other incidents in the same month. That is the blackest July in the history of the separatist war. No incident or a string of incidents in post independent Sri Lanka has taken such a heavy toll.

Not even the infamous Pooneryn disaster were the figures so high. Eight officers and 233 soldiers were declared Killed in Action in LTTE's attack on the Pooneryn defences on November 10, 1993. Although a further 4 officers and 396 soldiers were declared Missing in Action, their fate is unknown until today.

There is not an iota of evidence to confirm the survival of any soldiers or officers except those 64 who have returned to safety. Probes through intelligence channels and by some established international agencies operating in Colombo have continued to heighten this fear.

However, according to a senior military source at the Ministry of Defence, the LTTE did take 207 officers and men into custody after over-running the Mullaitivu Military Base. Before the crack of dawn these prisoners of war were being marched towards an unknown location when a young officer hurled a grenade killing at least six LTTE cadres including an unidentified leader. Infuriated by this incident, the source said, Tiger guerrillas summarily executed the entire lot.

"Oyatha Alaikal" or "Endless Waves", is the code name LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, gave for the guerrilla operation to attack the Mullaitivu Military Base. It has now come to light that preparations for the attack has been in the making for several weeks. Its main thrust was to forestall a perceived offensive the LTTE thought the security forces would launch in mid July to seize Kilinochchi.

Conscious of this, the LTTE had shifted its operational bases to areas south and south-east of Kilinochchi leaving behind only defensive positions. In a bid to hide its real aims, the LTTE resorted to diversionary tactics by amassing cadres near Elephant Pass and Pooneryn. In a bid to create suspicions, they had moved coffins within visible sight of security forces observation posts in late June and early July.

Shortly after midnight on July 18, (Thursday), an estimated 1000 LTTE cadres began the attack on the Mullaitivu Military Base, from its northern and southern defences. This base was home for Sri Lanka Army's 215 Brigade Headquarters, located on a thin strip of land alongside the coast.

Both the officiating Brigade Commander, Col. Lawrence Fernando and his deputy, Lt. Col. Gunaratne, were away in Colombo on duty leave. The next senior-most officer was Major Alibah, who was Commanding Officer of the Seventh Vijayaba Infantry Regiment. The other unit present there was the seventh battalion of the Sinha Regiment.

As the attackers broke through defence lines and obstacle belts in the north and southern parts of the camp, news reached Colombo. Telephones of top officials in the defence establishment began to hum with the news. Within hours, the three service Commanders - Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte (Army), Rear Admiral Mohan Samarasekera (Navy) and Air Marshal Oliver Ranasinghe (Air Force), flew to the Elephant Pass camp and were busy formulating plans for an immediate rescue effort.

It was only late last year, when Brigadier Kumban Bohran, was the Brigade Commander, at Mullaitivu, that security precautions at the base were strengthened. (Brigadier Bohran is now Officer Commanding the One Two Brigade in Colombo). A contingency plan was formulated. In terms of this plan, in the event of an overnight attack, re-enforcements by sea and air would have arrived the very next morning. Radars were also installed together with two generators, one as a back up in case the first failed.

The three service chiefs and their senior officers soon put together "Operation Thrivida Pahara" - a combined rescue operation that got under way even before dawn. Troops deployed in Jaffna who were re- enforcements boarded a merchant vessel berthed at Kankesanthurai harbour for a 20 mile journey into the high seas off Mullaitivu. From there, they were to transfer into Naval landing craft, come closer to the shore and transfer again to dinghies to make an amphibious landing on a beach-head. This required troops to transfer twice into different types of vessels. The tactical sense of this complicated maneuver is questionable even to a rank layman.

Sri Lanka Navy's Eastern Command led by Vice Admiral D.K. Dassanayake and Zonal Commander (East) of the Sri Lanka Air Force, both based in Trincomalee, had to deploy their resources in a hurriedly prepared rescue effort.Sri Lanka Air Force scrambled its MI 24 helicopter gunships, Pucara bombers and Kfir interceptor jets to take on targets. They began strafing LTTE positions in and around the besieged base. Naval induction of troops did not take place throughout July 18.

However, on that day, commandos from the Special Forces Regiment led by Lt. Col. Fasly Laphir an officer highly commended for his gallantry, were air landed near Alampil, some five kilometres south of Nullities.

The pilots who flew the Russian built MI 17 troop transport helicopters indulged in some highly creditable dare devilry amidst serious odds. On one occasion, an MI 17 disgorged troops almost in front of an LTTE fifty calibre gun position, so close that the guerrillas found it difficult to range their weapon and fire. The pilot made a hasty retreat to safety. Needless to say Air Marshal Ranasinghe's men played a heroic role.

Bloody encounters broke out between the guerrillas and the commando re-enforcements. Lt. Col. Laphir and 36 others were killed and 60 more were wounded. SLAF pilots braved the heavy gun fire to land a second batch of troops in the same area that evening.

As Thursday, July 18, was coming to a close the three service commanders moved to Trincomalee. The Joint Operations Headquarters which functioned from Anuradhapura was shifted temporarily to the SLAF base at China Bay. Deputy Defence Minister, General Anuruddha Ratwatte, too had joined in and kept following the developments closely.

At one point delays to rush troops by sea infuriated him so much that he severely reprimanded a high ranking Navy officer. Minister Ratwatte told him to be prepared to pack his bags and leave if he could not execute the tasks entrusted to him.As

July 19 dawned, troops on the merchant ship had reached their pre-arranged point in the high seas, transferred to the Navy landing crafts, travelled some distances and shifted to the dinghies to make a landing on the coast.

It was afternoon by the time troops began their journey from the high seas towards the Mullaitivu coast escorted by a flotilla of Navy patrol boats. Around 4.30 p.m. The sea borne convoy was advancing towards Mullaitivu Military Base, when Sea Tiger suicide cadres in boats laden heavily with explosives rammed one of the Navy vessels escorting them - SLNS Ranaviru, a Shanghai class fast gun boat. Those on the boat made frantic radio calls to the Operations Room of the Navy at the Dockyard in Trincomalee. Coastal resistance was very heavy.

The Navy craft sank downing its crew of 36 including Lt. Cmdr. Parakrama Samaraweera, the Commanding Officer. Only the bodies of seven sailors were retrieved in view of the raging gun battles that ensued. Once again a sea borne landing was aborted. The next day, July 20, the Navy called off attempts to induct troops and made more preparations. There were also minor repairs that were needed on some craft. Hence, they were set to resume their operations to land troops only on July 21. In the meantime Navy patrol craft engaged LTTE positions.

Whilst SLAF attack aircraft took on Sea Tiger boats, SLAF MI 17 helicopters dropped another group of commandos at dusk near the area where Lt. Col. Laphir's group had earlier landed. They consolidated their positions and established radio contact with some of the troops of Mullaitivu who were isolated from the main base which had been earlier over-run.

On July 20, SLAF MI 17 helicopters found LTTE resistance too heavy to effect more troops landings in the area where the commandos had heli-landed. They therefore made a landing some distance away. One of the MI 17 helicopters ferrying troops was hit by LTTE fire on approaching the landing zone and sustained damage to its fuel pipeline.

With only a few minutes endurance available, the pilot made it to a neighbouring camp in time. Later SLAF technicians flew in from their base in Vavuniya to repair the damage.

It was only on July 21 that Navy landing craft began landing troops after the commandos at least five kilometres south of Mullaitivu had established a beach-head. That too came under heavy mortar fire. A few mortars fell on the wire mesh of a Navy landing craft. Another hit the landing ramp severing it and killing a group of soldiers who were disembarking.

It took upto July 23 for the troops to consolidate on the beach-head and advance towards the Mullaitivu base under fierce resistance. By the time the advance troops reached the southern perimeter of the Base, they discovered that what was once a military base was no more. The buildings had been razed to the ground. The troops reported that they were greeted by the unbearable stench of decayed and dismembered bodies. Many felt sick.

July 24 and 25 saw the troops making a withdrawal after the higher command had decided to abandon the relief of the destroyed base. The last three days of "Operation Thrivida Pahara" saw not only the JOH at China Bay directing operations but also an airborne operations command. On board an SLAF aircraft, Vice Admiral Dissanayake, Wing Commander Abeywickrema and Brigadier Percy Fernando with their respective staff. Each had their own service communications equipment and directed group operations and target acquisitions.

The withdrawal also had its own snags. The Navy landing crafts supporting the withdrawal determined that they would beach the landing craft only for six minutes for embarking troops. Navy officials say that they waited for 13 minutes and left the beach only after Army officials gave them the all clear. Be that as it may the hiccup in the withdrawal left a group of soldiers stranded on the beach, all of whom were eventually killed by the Tigers.

Army Commander, Lt. Gen. Rohan Daluwatte, appointed a three member Court of Inquiry to probe the Mullaitivu incident. Earlier, its terms of reference were to focus only on how and why the defences of Mullaitivu failed, but had later extended the terms to include the estimation of the equipment losses which some say runs into billions of rupees.

The Court is headed by Major General Patrick Fernando and comprises Major General E.H. Samaratunga and Brigadier Gamini Hettiaratchi as members.

The Court has held sittings both in Colombo and in Anuradhapura and has heard evidence from several persons including most of those who escaped from Mullaitivu. The versions they gave were understandably different but each had its own human drama.

There were some who were atop a coconut tree whilst there were others holed up in a shallow well. Thereafter they made good their escape. There was one case of a soldier who swam to a Naval patrol craft amidst heavy gun fire and floated around whilst being questioned to confirm identity before he was taken on board. There were others who trekked the jungles until they made contact with the commandos. Some surfaced at the Kokkutuduwai Army camp whilst others turned up at Weli Oya and even Elephant Pass.

Navy Commander, Rear Admiral Mohan Samarasekera earlier named his Chief of Staff Rear Admiral H.A.C.A. Tissera, to head the Naval Court of Inquiry. However, later he appointed Captain T.S.G. Samarasinghe (Commanding Officer of the Navy installation at Welisara) as President and Captain Abeykoon Banda (Deputy Director, Logistics and Supplies) as a board member.

The tragedy will remain in the political and military conscience but the suffering of the next of kin of the loved ones who died at Mullaitivu will remain in the hearts forever.

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